Dave Benton’s first official album under the name Trace Mountains—2018’s A Partner to Lean On—features all the attributes that made him a standout in the three-songwriter attack of New York City indie-rock stalwart LVL UP throughout most of the 2010s.
There’s his warm acoustic strum, his weary deadpan, his level-headed approach to dynamics and his glassy, malleable melodies—all qualities that make A Partner to Lean On a record that goes down smooth. But it’s the more unexpected sounds—spacey echo, squirrelly synths, warped vocals, weird noise—that elevate Trace Mountains’ debut into something not just listenable, but interesting. And promising.
Benton’s follow-up, Lost in the Country, is another pleasantly tuneful listen, but it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. Its 10 songs sit and simmer in Trace Mountains’ sonic comfort zone, while most of the surprises seem to have been left behind. The result is an album that’s perfectly likable, but not much more.
Lost in the Country starts off strong with one of its best songs, “Rock & Roll,” which finds Benton unspooling a stream of lyrics about the mystery of life and moonlit country skies against a motorik beat. Later, “Cooper’s Dream” packs guitar crunch, the spooky sound of the singing saw and more pursuit of mystery into its jaunty three-minute runtime, while the title track boasts the album’s prettiest arrangement—imagine a janglier, less jammy War on Drugs—and some moving introspection: “In all the years gone by, in all the people that we pass by,” Benton sings, his voice cracking regularly. “What might happen if we actually looked them in the eye?”
At more than five minutes long and sequenced in the middle of its namesake album, “Lost in the Country” is clearly the centerpiece here. But its gravitational pull isn’t quite strong enough to give much form to the songs that surround it. “Benji” brings some of LVL UP’s fuzz to the party, but thematically, it feels slight and out of place. “Me & May” and “Fallin’ Rain” are pretty, mid-paced songs, but good luck remembering how to hum them after the album ends. On the other hand, “Dog Country” is gentle and sweet, with streaks of lap steel guitar swooping in and out of Benton’s musings on the natural world and his place within it: “As I saw the deep wide sky stand before me,” he sings as the song swells, “all this confusion made my heart grow fonder.”
The interaction between earth’s landscapes and man’s journey toward self-discovery is a recurring theme on Lost in the Country, an album where rivers are never-ending and a quiet moment on a trail is interrupted by the buzz of a smartphone. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that listening to Trace Mountains’ sophomore effort is like standing in the middle of a densely wooded forest. After a while, the trees start to look the same, the beauty begins to blur together and bewilderment sets in.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.